The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

I Heart Megalithia (review of The Megalithic Empire)

Anyone with even a passing interest in Stonehenge or prehistory in general “knows” that the megaliths that pepper the British Isles (and to a lesser extent parts of Continental Europe and the Mediterranean) were probably religious in nature—sites for rituals, probably having to do with solstices, etc. “Ritual purposes” is the standard explanation for archaeological features that don’t serve a practical purpose we can discern. But what if that’s all nonsense?

The authors of the new book The Megalithic Empire, M.J. Harper and H.L. Vered, approach the problem of megaliths and other related phenomena by thinking a bit more carefully about their possibly practical purpose, forgetting (for the moment) any possible ritual significance. What they discover is that megaliths conveniently (and ingeniously) answer a very pressing pragmatic need, once you put yourself in the shoes of a prehistoric trader faced with the task of getting his product (the example they use is tin, a major British export in prehistory) to a buyer, traveling to some distant point over land without the aid of a map or written signposts.

To briefly summarize their main argument: The abundant standing stones, stone circles, menhirs, and various dikes and earthworks across Britain, along its coastlines, and in more far-flung locales with which pre-Roman Britain traded make perfect, beautifully simple sense as durable components of a comprehensive land- and sea-based wayfinding system, a system that facilitated long-distance exchange of goods and people for thousands of years before the arrival of literacy. (Stonehenge, which certainly had an astronomical function, may have been the central observatory that calibrated the rest of the system.) The intellectual keepers of this system, which can be more or less identified with the pre-Roman Druids, retreated to Ireland during the Roman occupation but reasserted themselves during the Dark Ages under the guise of Celtic Christianity (Christian in name only), and gave rise to various medieval organizations centered on the themes of travel, trade, and building in stone, including the Cistercians, the Knights Templars, and the Freemasons.

Mainstream archaeologists don’t dispute that Britain had major trade ties to the continent and the Mediterranean throughout the Bronze Age and before, but the practical particulars of moving goods around have generally been ignored. Few have grappled with the problems of conducting major trade in the absence of writing and maps. By reconceiving of megaliths and prehistoric terraforming in terms of navigation and the moving of goods and animals over long distances, Harper and Vered fill this gap. In the process, they show that numerous details, not only of archaeology and geography but also of folklore, begin to make enormous sense as echoes of a pan-European trading society that needed to maintain the system with minimal labor and pay for its infrastructure and upkeep through the collecting of tolls.

How central and organized it all was is an open question that the authors don’t really answer, but with this term “megalithic” they seem to have put their finger on a nexus of important pre-Christian, pre-literate values, ideas, and practices that has survived to the present day, alongside Christianity and oddly in mockery of it, and often weirdly linked to toll-paying. You’ll never think about wishing wells, the location of pubs, or witches and their familiars the same way after reading this book. A lot of other conclusions and speculations also radiate from their central insights about “Megalithia Inc.”—including some fascinating possibilities about the history of animal and plant domestication and the true meaning of saints, dragons, and angels. The book is a goldmine of interesting ideas.

Like a lot of revisionist history/archaeology, the hypothesis in The Megalithic Empire amounts to a version of “the ancients were cleverer than we give them credit.” The key difference between the version of this narrative proposed by Harper and Vered and the breathless “lost civilizations” fantasies spun by Graham Hancock and his ilk is that there is no whiff in this case of pareidola—seeing faces in clouds, or Orion’s belt in the pyramids. (Well, the other key difference is, Harper and Vered are a lot funnier than Hancock.) Yet The Megalithic Empire‘s proposal, and the picture of the ancient world that compellingly takes shape around it, is no less exciting.

If they’re right, Harper and Vered have discovered a pretty major secret about prehistory (and after) that is secret not because of conspiracy but simply because of silence and forgetting: Megalithia didn’t use (and maybe even actively resisted) writing, so the only physical traces it left were in the landscape. This book offers a whole new way of seeing and reading that landscape—and on the book’s website,, the authors invite readers to test out the theory themselves by taking their own “megalithic walks” through the British countryside. If I lived there, I’d take up that challenge in a heartbeat.

Harper, author of the equally dazzling The Secret History of the English Language (published in Britain as The History of Britain Revealed) is sort of the “leader” of a small and intensely interesting group of outside-the-box, non- or para-academic revisionists calling themselves “applied epistemologists.” Their snarky and endlessly fascinating trashings of received wisdom on everything from Beowulf to plate tectonics can be read and enjoyed at The applied epistemology approach to debunking orthodoxy is based on ruthlessly applying a few simple assumptions to whatever question is at hand. When it comes to history, they assume that things in the past were the same as they are now, unless there’s solid evidence they weren’t.

Professional historians (and archaeologists) make their living by telling stories, because stories are interesting—usually full of tumult and conflict and change—but applied epistemologists resist the lure of exciting-sounding stories. In the face of academic narratives they, well, apply epistemology, asking skeptically: How do we really know? When you actually look at it, it turns out, a disturbing lot of what academic historians say (and I can vouch that it is the same in other fields) is either the parroting of unexamined orthodoxies or professionally motivated strategic overstatement … when it is not outright fraud. Harper and his friends at show that when you actually trace much of orthodox history or linguistics, for example, back to their sources, you find that many of those sources were probable forgeries created during the Reformation. Much of what we “know” about pre-Modern Northern Europe rests ultimately on documents with very iffy provenance that always seem to have conveniently supported the particular national allegiences of the original owner or his patrons.

Extrapolating, you can safely say that much of what we “know” about the past is probably wrong—even wildly wrong. This leaves a lot of room for new theories that are better, simpler, more explanatory than those in the textbooks.

The real unfolding of human events, applied epistemologists assume, is less often like a soap opera and more often like paint drying. Things don’t change unless there’s a compelling reason for it. And despite what any professional anthropologist will tell you, people are the same everywhere and at all times. This can often make ancient history vanish from view. Among the frustrating lacunae in the archaeology of pre-Roman Britain, for example, is the absence of evidence for villages; Harper and Vered sensibly point out that they are hard to find because they are right underneath the existing villages. Prehistoric Brits lived right where the modern ones do, their roads were replaced by generations upon generations of more modern ones, in exactly the same place. And as Harper argues in his previous book, they in all likelihood spoke more or less the same language the present-day villagers speak.

More to the point, prehistoric Brits had the same motives modern Brits do—namely, to live the good life, which included having nice stuff. Having nice stuff meant being part of an active, far-flung economic world. So, read this book, and erase your misty Pre-Raphaelite visions of Druids dancing around the ancient stones. Travel and trade is what Megalithia was all about. In a landscape full of strategically-placed stone circles and other markers, all you needed was a cross-staff, a little circle of leather and something to mark it with (you’ll have to read the book to find out how it works as a compass), and a purse of coins or salt to pay your way, and you were in business.



I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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